The exits of Chelsea and Manchester City from the group stages of the Champions League represents the fall from grace in terms of English stature on club football’s biggest stage.
It is clear that we are no longer the European force of years gone by. Manchester United and Arsenal may well have cruised into the knockout stages, but they’ve come up against clubs with mere European pedigree. Three or four seasons ago English clubs were a force to be reckoned with. The ‘big four’ of Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal consistently progressed to the latter stages.
When Spain won the European Championships in 2008 with a brand of football, which was admired all over the world, a power shift was imminent. Manchester United had won the Champions League the season previous, in an all-English final against Chelsea. In that year, three of the four Semi-final clubs were English, and half of the Quarter-finalists were English. The 2005 season had two clubs in the Semi-finals, 2006 saw Arsenal reach the final, and both 2007 and 2009 seasons saw three of the four Semi-finalists again English represented. However, the 2009 final in Rome saw Barcelona outplay Manchester United, inspired by the brilliance of Messi, Xavi, and Iniesta. After Chelsea’s failure once again, they went back the drawing board. Manchester United lost Ronaldo and Tevez in the summer, and Liverpool’s team dismantled after departures of top internationals like Alonso and Mascherano.
Barcelona’s emergence saw El Clasico rivals Real Madrid respond by bringing back Florentino Perez. Fearing Catalan domination, millions were pumped into the club, breaking the bank to bring in Cristiano Ronaldo for a club record £80 million. Italian football lost its credibility during the match fixing scandal in 2006. Several clubs were damaged; the biggest of these were Juventus. They were relegated to the second division; AC Milan also had points docked. However, these two Italian giants are beginning to become a force in Europe once more. In Germany, standard has improved in the last few years; the youth academies are producing a talented crop of new players. The likes of Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich and Schalke are benefiting from the next generation.
The power has also shifted in English football, Arsenal and Liverpool are no longer European heavyweights. Manchester United and Chelsea are challenging at the top, but arguably they still remain in transition. Mega bucks Manchester City might have won the title last season, but they are still only competing in the Champions League for the second time. Top clubs are adapting in an attempt to replicate the ‘tikka-takka’ style adopted in Spain, and notably by Barcelona. Manchester City has done this through signing players like Nasri and Silva.
Chelsea have bought technical players like Hazard and Oscar, to implement the change. Manchester United are playing narrower without traditional wingers, and Brendan Rodgers is also imposing his Spanish roots on his Liverpool side.
I think it’s important to consider that trying to copy a style that works for one isn’t always the answer for another. English clubs of years gone by have relied on physicality, and have drawn strength from this. Unfortunately, this seems to be leaving the game altogether. Barcelona are clearly unique and easy on the eye, but perhaps we should remember that football can be played more than one way; as Chelsea showed in Munich to lift the Champions League trophy last season.